seeing myself on tv

Priyanka, a drag queen on Canada’s Drag Race. she describes her heritage as Indo-Caribbean. in this photo, Priyanka is wearing a blue and gold sari with one leg exposed, her black hair is styled big and parted on the side into two perfect asymmetrical swooshes. i cannot describe fashion, unfortunately. but she’s gorgeous!! Photo from RuPaul’s Drag Race Wiki, uploaded by AlexanderRous.

Even before the pandemic, television has always been my favorite form of visual media. I worked three jobs through college and was well known for falling asleep during movies. I enjoyed the theater and acted in a few small plays. I had a favorite improv troupe (it was the early 2000s). I didn’t have cable growing up. My home movie repertoire included Blockbuster rentals and sunday movies of the week. My family watched a lot of TV together.

My cultural heritage is Mexican and Sri Lankan. Growing up, it was rare to see people who looked like me. TV in the 1990s and 2000s might contain a single person of color in an otherwise-white cast. Shows that were more diverse were often the niche.

I’ve spent most of the year indoors due to the pandemic. This means I’ve been watching a lot of TV. My tastes now branch out into many genres. I’m starting to see more people who look like me, who grew up like me. Here are a few that have caught my eye recently.

Never Have I Ever: remixing stereotypes
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Devi, the main character on the show Never Have I Ever. The actor is Sri Lankan, but Devi is an awkward Indian high school sophomore. She lives with her mother Nalini and cousin Kamala after the death of her father. Nalini’s mannerisms remind of so many aunties I’ve known in my life. Devi, too, is like a lot of the family friends I had growing up: very smart, but also pretty weird.

There was a “color blind” take prevalent among proto-woke white writers in a lot of 90s media. People challenged themselves by taking a white character and casting them as Black. A Black character dealing with white stories the way a white person would. It loses all the richness that comes from having characters with varied backgrounds. People are not interchangable, and neither are their stories.

I love that Devi could be in the background of another show, a naive, too-intelligent foil to a white kid. Instead, this is her show. One episode centers on the family celebrating Ganesh Puja. There’s so much story that is possible there, rather than another bake sale setting. Devi’s stories are interesting enough to stand on their own.

Monarca: know your audience
As a millennial with a borrowed HBO login, I loved watching the dripping excess of Succession. But I was not prepared to enjoy the show I compared it to: Monarca. It’s centered on a family of media conglomerate and tequila billionaires in Mexico. After the murder of their father, Ana María, Andrés, and Joaquin vie for his empire’s throne. The stories of an all-Mexican family of elites don’t play the way they do on Succession, or even Arrested Development. There’s intrigue, betrayal, and drama.

They also bypass the they’re-Mexican-but-always-speak-English trope of some US show. Though it’s a Netflix-owned series, Monarca is set in Mexico and films in Spanish. I’m glad they can find crossover success while retaining what makes them unique.

Priyanka on Canada’s Drag Race: why diversity is important behind the camera
Priyanka is a drag queen on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race. More than 150 queens have been on the many different series in the show’s universe. Priyanka is only the second person of Indian heritage to appear. It wasn’t until she appeared that I realized I had been missing more brown people in the Drag Race pantheon.

But Canada matches the Pacific Northwest bill for its whiteness. When Priyanka competed in the category Pageant Perfection, she dressed in a modern take on a blue and gold sari. Priyanka says her inspiration was her grandmother. She wanted to bring a Bollywood-style beauty to her performance. The judges, instead, raved over what they called her Princess Jasmine look. It served as a reminder that even when we stand out, we do so through the lens of a dominant culture.

There is so much TV coming out these days, it’s about time that media started to look like different people. BIPOC stars can still flounder when they’re written for and directed by an all-white crew.

I didn’t grow up with these shows, but I’m glad that they exist now. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

like a hammer

a video by Jeffrey Gibson called ‘one becomes the other’. the film is set in the Denver Art Museum. Indigenous people in ceremonial dress populate the film, examining artifacts on display throughout the museum and in the archives. I’m fascinated by the racist juxtaposition of what I perceive as “ancient” meeting the “modern” setting of the museum. But as the people demonstrate in every frame, they are very much alive. this culture lives on, despite the best attempts of the dominant culture in the united states.

Jeffrey Gibson’s exhibition Like a Hammer was on display at the Seattle Art Museum last spring. It’s one of the rare exhibits I’ve gone to see more than once. (Another fave was Gordon Parks’ Segregation Story at the High Museum). The exhibition space on the last night of the show was buzzing with energy. A person wearing a shirt that read “Indigiqueer and still here” caught my eye.

One of Jeffrey Gibson’s pieces is a video called On the Other Hand (above). Kealey Boyd at hyperallergic says, “The film is set in the Native American archives and art storage of the Denver Art Museum. We see a man speaking Kiowa pick up a hand drum from a shelf and begin to play. A woman in a long, white dress with colorful patterns enters the halls, dancing in time.”

The video moves me because it is both modern and historical. People with indigenous ancestry handle artifacts that once sat in someone’s home. At what precise moment does an item shift from “everyday object” to “artifact”? Set in a museum’s archives, the video also made me think about these pieces as art. I compared them to what American culture is used to seeing in museums: baroque paintings, snuff boxes, marble sculptures. Someone owned these priceless paintings before they landed in a museum. The cards nearby often state the former owner or the fact that it is a gift. What do these Indigenous artifacts say about their owners? Did they give these items in the same way?

The stereotypical Native American war bonnet is a classic example of cultural appropriation. An item worn by male leaders in some Plains Indian tribes is now divorced from its original intents. Now, colonizers wear it at outdoor festivals and halloween parties. We call it cultural appropriation because it’s stolen. It’s used without permission. It’s used without respect, by a person who has no connection to the object’s origin.

For me, an important component of cultural appropriation is profit. Another is power. Another is context. Rick Bayless took medium-low heat for making his fortune on mass-produced Mexican recipes. He argues that his knowledge of Mexican culture justifies his profit. But as many critics have pointed out to him, a white man in Oklahoma is likelier to receive a business loan. His family supported him while he spent his teenage years studying Mexican cuisine. He had to learn these recipes and techniques from experts in the field. But what happened to those teachers? What happened to the restaurant that inspired Taco Bell?

What I find interesting about Jeffrey Gibson’s work is his remix of cultures. The beadwork on punching bags links his heritage with that of his oppressors. With his art, he creates new artifacts for a culture that never went away.

writing my name in lower case started with y’all

A picture of Big Tex at night. Big Tex, the giant statue of a white guy in hideous clothing, used to welcome visitors to the Texas State Fair. That night he watched me eat fried Coca-cola (we say Coke) and nearly die.

Whenever I can help it, I write my name using only lowercase letters. I’ve done this since college at least. I’ve always signed my emails that way. “Proper” nouns in general feel snooty. Sentence case is fine. I guess.

I remember starting to use y’all around the same time I dropped the capital letters in my name. When I started college, I worked at a fancy restaurant in a small town in Texas. I didn’t give y’all-the-word much thought back then. But working at this restaurant made the expression critical to my success as a server. “Y’all” was shorthand for who I was and how long I had lived in the state. It signified to my rich and white clientele that I was from around here. I could affect a Texas drawl though it didn’t often stick, but y’all came out easy and unforced.

People of color navigate and survive in society through many different means. My strategy in those days was to survive through assimilation. Many of those techniques have stayed with me, though I am more aware of them now. I reject assimilation the more I feel comfortable in my own skin. Using y’all in this context established rapport with my customers. It meant I got bigger tips and repeat customers. I used it so much back then that y’all soon became part of my regular vocabulary.

But after I moved from the hospitality industry to an office, y’all disappeared. I’ve spent most of my career feeling like I had a lot to prove. I worried that using unprofessional language would harm my career advancement. It became a part of myself that I felt like I had to hide if I wanted to get anywhere.

After a few career moves and increased responsibilities, I started to bring y’all with me. Y’all was finally a part of me that I felt comfortable revealing. It was a nonissue almost everywhere. If anything, it humanized me. At the start of my career I worried about appearing too perfect. I thought that people would interpret my ambition and competence as arrogance. Y’all became a personal touch. It was more than an informal plural, non-gendered way to address a group of folks. My career success helped bring “unprofessional” slang into my professional world.

The spelling of my name traveled a similar but longer path. Everyone in America learns that you must capitalize your name and others’. It doesn’t matter what you like, those are the rules. But I started writing my name in work emails the way I do in personal emails. I started to feel more comfortable writing it everywhere. To my surprise, with no reinforcing, people in my office took notice.

Nowadays the people in my life use them both interchangably. But the spelling of my name isn’t that serious. People who are trans, non-binary, or gender nonconforming should be able to affirm their identity without issue. But this is how I like my name to look. In a world of typed documents and email, it’s the name I prefer to use. Y’all was something I felt comfortable doing as a junior employee. josh is something I can call myself as a director.

In a very small way—in my own way—I am helping to disrupt the status quo of what people consider professional. I prove that you can do good work and still define yourself against type. I must also tell people that my identity is separate from the value that I bring to an organization. It’s part of who I am. And no matter who you are, it should be easy for (y’)all of us to respect.

ableism is invisible if you are able

I missed a week! I’ve been trying to stay consistent on the blog but the COVID-19 response has sucked up all my free time. In the meantime, here is a quick post I wrote recently.

Graphic of a matrix titled “Just use ____ straws!” with a list of alternatives to single-use plastic straws. Each alternative (metal, paper, glass, silicone, etc.) is marked with a variety of reasons why that type of straw would not work for some people. The original graphic was made by Hell on Wheels. Rambling Justice has a great round-up of straw infographics and alt text describing the graphic.

ableism is invisible if you are able
oppression is invisible if you are the oppressor
transphobia is invisible if you are not transgender
homophobia is invisible if you are not homosexual
white supremacy is invisible if you are white

I used to think it was okay to ban straws because they play such an invisible role in society. I could replace single-use plastic straws with any of the alternatives (paper, bamboo, glass, metal) that work for me. Straws damage wildlife and the environment, meaning their drawbacks outweigh their benefits. In fact, I can even choose to enforce consumerism by proudly purchasing a reusable straw. When I do that, I’m filling a need I didn’t have. My need for them was invisible. 

People who can’t drink without straws have tried or know about the alternatives. Many still stick with single-use plastic straws. Why did I instinctively doubt this? When I look for something to meet a need of mine, I research it for hours before settling on my solution. For example, I spent hours researching electric toothbrushes. I tried a few different kinds, I read reviews, and I chose my favorite. Why wouldn’t I imagine others doing the same for their own needs? I could declare that my alternative solution, such as metal straws, is the best for everyone. If someone still prefers plastic single-use straws over metal, they aren’t enlightened enough. One might consider expense to be the biggest factor. Metal straws are more costly than plastic single-use straws. Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, created TOMS Shoes for this reason. By giving shoes for people who are shoeless, he is filling a need that they did not have. He assumes that people without shoes lack them only because of their cost.

Because I am able, using a straw is not something I spend more than a few minutes each month thinking about. Because I am able, I should trust what differently abled people tell me is true for them. Many of us are part of at least one socially-dominant group. It’s our responsibility to listen to the needs and concerns of people who are different from us. Once we have listened, we should work together to act.